Commentary: Curb intolerance by building personal relationships

We met on a bus. Rosila Ishmael was a recent graduate of one of Malaysia's universities. She was angling for a job on a newspaper. I was taking a break from newspaper work to live in her country as a volunteer for a nonprofit group.

She was serene and friendly, and conversation made the miles pass by quickly. As the bus rolled into Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital city, she wrote her telephone number on a slip of paper and told me to get in touch if I needed anything.

In fact, I needed a translator. I was working on a project documenting women-owned businesses in Malaysia. I needed someone to help me out in the villages where residents spoke only Bahasa, the native language. And the final report was supposed to be bilingual, so I would need someone to translate it from English to Bahasa.

I telephoned Rosila the same night we met. She liked the idea, and said she would ask her father.

I wasn't optimistic. Malaysia was a welcoming country in 1988 but conservative. Would a Muslim father allow his daughter to travel and work with an American she’d met on a bus? It seemed unlikely.

But Rosila called the next day, sounding happy. Her dad had confidence in his college-educated daughter. Besides, it was a paying job.

And so, for a couple of months, we were fellow travelers. We rode buses to seaside villages and small cities, talking to women who had bonded together to start thriving agricultural, seamstress and handicraft industries.

Rosila was devout. She assiduously avoided consumption of pork, and she carried a prayer rug on our journeys. Five times a day, whenever the local mosques sounded their haunting call to prayer, she produced the patch of carpet, figured out the direction of Mecca, and quietly worshipped. I remember thinking that it must be a wonderful thing to be so grounded in a faith.

Like most Malaysian Muslims at that time, Rosila favored a moderate form of Islam. Women were encouraged to go to school and work. Harsh applications of sharia law met disapproval. Only occasionally did we see a woman clad in full-length black garb and veiled face. We commented that it looked impractical in the tropical heat.

Eventually we completed our research. I wrote the English version of our report and Rosila translated it into Bahasa. An official from our funding agency reviewed the translation and said it was flawless.

I have a snapshot taken of us shortly before we parted ways. We are visiting a port city, and there are ships in the background. We are side by side, smiling. Both of us are wearing sneakers, jeans, and long-sleeved blouses. She wears a white headscarf, and I leave my hair uncovered. Our likenesses are vastly greater than our differences.

I returned to the United States and picked up my career in journalism. Rosila landed a job as a reporter on one of Malaysia's English language newspapers. We corresponded for a time but regrettably lost touch.

I think about her these days, as commentators around the world discuss mosques and extremism and the differences among us.

Islamism in Malaysia has taken a harder form since 1988. My collaboration with Rosila, unlikely then, seems more problematic today.

Attitudes have hardened here, too, to the point where religious leaders have stepped forth to deplore the growing climate of fear and intolerance leading up to Saturday's ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Relationships are a powerful antidote to stereotypes and intolerance. That's why we should encourage our college students to study in Muslim nations and welcome the Islamic students who walk the campuses here. It's why we should get to know the Muslim shop owners and computer programmers and others in our communities.

Because of Rosila and other gentle and honorable Muslims whom I met in Malaysia, I hear the description of Islam as a religion of violence and know it's wrong.

My hope is that she remembers those months we spent together. And if she hears Americans stereotyped as intolerant and anti-Islamic, she'll know that, too, is a falsehood.